Unrest in a Cuban Fishing Town

A sleepy village outside Havana has become a focal point of popular frustrations

EACH Sunday the people in this town try to hold a memorial service by the waterfront where three of their neighbors were killed by the Cuban Coast Guard while attempting to flee this island nation a year ago.

But the procession has never made it to the waterfront.

Every time they attempt it, local police stop the group and threaten the priest if they continue their five-block walk to the harbor. Flowers and candles left at the mooring are removed at night.

Cojimar, 10 miles east of Havana, hitherto a sleepy fishing town, is now known throughout Cuba as the site of the island's most serious incident of social unrest.

Last June, police shot and killed three Cubans as they boarded a speedboat. The owner of the escape boat, an American, was seriously wounded. The deadly clash triggered a violent reaction from Cojimar's residents.

Hundreds of them took to the streets, stoned the police, burned a police car, and finally dispersed when special military units arrived and opened fire.

After the incident, police searched the area to remove evidence of the shooting. But bullet holes remain in the water tanks of some homes in the area. And everyone in Cojimar is resentful and angry about what happened a year ago.

``What country would turn its Army against its own people?'' asks Jose Luis Zulueta, a young man who witnessed the confrontation. ``We were told for years we had the best Army in South America, and now we find out they have been trained to shoot at us - Cubans.''

The Cuban armed forces have been issued specific orders to use ``guns, tanks, planes, and whatever has to be used'' to put down antigovernment uprisings, says Capt. Leonides Basulto, a former Cuban MIG-fighter pilot who recently defected to the United States. The incident at Cojimar is the first time that the military has had to execute those orders.

It is conditions in towns such as Cojimar that trigger such uprisings. The people in Cojimar admit that their revolt was both a backlash at the police for the shooting and a manifestation of their frustration with the hard economic times. Most residents are weary of the toil of getting food, the daily blackouts due to lack of fuel, and the long lines to get rationed goods such as soap and toilet paper.

Price hikes announced on May 23 by Cuba's Council of Ministers in the hope of restoring order to the country's chaotic internal finances come as yet another blow to Cubans as they battle daily hardships.

A month after the Cojimar confrontation, small groups of protesters marched down the streets of several neighborhoods in Havana demanding electricity for their homes and more food. The demonstrators immediately clashed with special police forces called Rapid Deployment Brigades. Many of the protesters were arrested, some injured. The Brigades were set up two years ago in every barrio and village to quickly put down such protests.

Despite the police crackdown a year ago, Cojimar has become a major launching point for locals and others from the countryside fleeing the island in rafts and small boats. ``We have no choice but to flee,'' says Rodolfo Arroyo, a young man, who has tried to reach the US twice. ``The first time the currents brought me back to shore. The second time [the authorities] caught me five miles offshore, and I spent five months in jail - one month for every mile.''

A Cuban government official acknowledges that the government is well-aware of the many attempts to escape made every night from Cojimar. ``We know about it, but if we try to stop them, we could have another bloody incident, and that's the last thing we need,'' he says.

Coast Guard officials in Miami say the number of Cubans seeking asylum has reached record numbers since the Mariel boat lift in the early 1980s. So far this year, 2,230 have reached Florida. Unofficial Coast Guard studies indicate that only 2 out of every 5 rafters survives the dangerous journey.

``I may try it again soon,'' Mr. Arroyo says. ``I am young and full of dreams. Why should I stay in a place that kills the dreams of young people? We have no future here. In Cuba there are shortages of everything, but the most serious shortage is the lack of freedom.''

The confrontation with police has emboldened the people of Cojimar to speak more freely and critically against the government. ``Some kids, at night during the blackouts, paint signs that say: `Down with Fidel,' '' Mr. Zulueta says.

But most Cubans are still afraid of a system they describe as more ``repressive'' than ever. ``People will not rise up again because they are afraid. We are all very afraid,'' says the mother of a two-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous. Surrounded by her neighbors while talking, suddenly they all disperse. Minutes later they regroup. ``That man who walked by was an informer,'' she explains. ``If he hears me talking against the government, I will end up in jail.

``I get money from my husband who made it to Miami in a raft a year ago. Otherwise we would be starving,'' she adds. ``I cry when I sit down and reflect on the state of our nation. Such a beautiful country, but such an ugly life.''

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